How do you have amazing adventures while on a budget? It’s a question that many people struggle with—especially students. Finances don’t get much tighter than when you are in school and trying to balance life’s necessities with play. While being a frugal adventurer certainly isn’t easy, it is possible.
I spent last year volunteering with AmeriCorps while earning my masters degree. Now that I’m back in school full time and struggling to find the time (and money!) needed to get outside, I’ve figured out how to do it on the cheap. And while it may not be climbing in Patagonia or surfing in Oahu, by thinking outside of the box, I’ve been able to regularly go on lots of small hikes, some weekend camping trips, and even hike Mt. Katahdin—all on a student budget. These outings were all possible with the frugal tips below (and lots of PBJs!):
1. Be okay with a different type of adventure.
I found I needed to change my mindset about what adventure means. While you can still dream of and plan for catching powder on a snowboard trip, week-long campouts, and international exploration, it is most important to get excited about any adventure when you’re on a tight budget. It’s incredible how simple and drastic this mind-shift has been; it’s taught me to be happy with what is currently possible, then chase after it.
2. Stay local.
Take some time to learn what’s in your backyard. There is likely so much that you overlooked that you can (and should!) now explore. Try buying yourself an annual state park pass: For most states, this will be under $100 for a year of unlimited parking and admission, and usually some discounts on camping and activities. Or, if you’re short on time (and seriously strapped for cash), simply head out on an urban exploration by investigating the nooks and crannies of your neighborhood. You might find that the sidewalk you’re hitting leads to a park trail, or meet new adventure buddies (which helps with tip #3!).
3. Bring your friends.
One of the best ways to save money is to bring along friends for the adventure. You’ll split gas, food costs (if you pack your own—another great way to save!), and any fees (admission, parking, camping, etc.). If you’re heading out overnight, do your research on the campsite maximum capacity, then fill it to the brim for ultimate savings.
4. Learn how to be frugal.
Until you’re out from under your student loans, you can use all the frugal tips you can get:
- Learn how to spend the night for free. There are tons of options for free camping and I’ve become a sucker for finding them. Able to camp? There are likely free areas to set up your tent in all but the most popular of areas. Another route is to backpack in, just follow the area’s rules about where to set up camp. If you’re not quite ready for that, look for a campground with minimal amenities in the off-season or use a lean-to on state land. If you’re not able to camp, you can sleep in your car in (most) Walmart parking lots for free, or check out a hostel—these usually offer quite affordable bunk bed options.
- Know when your local parks and the National Parks are free. This is usually during the park’s off-season, but participating National Parks are free several times throughout the year.
- Buy gear online in the off-season. You may not be able to get the exact brand, color, or style you want, but I’ve saved hundreds this way.
- Rent gear from your local store, college, or outdoor organization. If you’re not sure you’ll be using a certain piece of gear over and over again, it’s best to rent. At my college’s outing club I can pick up an item of gear for about $5 each—totally worth it!
- Join your college’s or city’s outing club. It usually costs only a small fee but it’ll open up lots of savings. Bonus: You’ll find like-minded people to share the costs of trips!
- Volunteer for free lodging or activity. My friends and I cleared campsites as soon as the snow melted last year and received two nights of free camping (ocean-view!), dinner, and breakfast in exchange. Plus, doing trail or campsite maintenance is a great way to get outside for free!
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